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  • Writer's pictureỊfụnanya Nwanonyiri


By Ịfụnanya Nwanonyiri


“Nne kedụ?”

“I am fine and you?”

“Ọ dị mma. Ebee ka ị na-aga?”

“I am on my way to the big house.”

“Nne, m na-asụrụ gị Igbo, kee ihe mere ị na-aza m na bekee.”

“I’m sorry, it’s because I can understand Igbo to an extent but I cannot speak it.”

I remember this exchange vividly. In December 2016, I was in my paternal home, my village of Egbuoma in Imo State in the southeastern region of Nigeria, when one of my cousins saw me walking on the red sandy road in front of our compound and stopped me to chat. I remember the village was buzzing with the chatter of distant people and nearby insects. The palm trees danced beautifully in the harmattan wind that was blowing. The sun was still high and bright and there I was standing in my fatherland, the land of my roots, rich with so much of my history, and identity and I stood there utterly ashamed.

“I cannot speak Igbo,” I muttered again.

My cousin, Uche, was so kind and patient with me, but at that moment he genuinely could not understand how he and I were in our native lands and he was speaking Igbo to me and my replies, though appropriate, were all in English. Despite my reply to him and his simple encouragement for me to try and learn how to speak Igbo, I knew that he could never fully comprehend how much I wished, so deeply, to have been able to reply him back in Igbo. Or how much I wished the sweet rhythmic melody of the Igbo language could flow from my lips, the way it had for him. For me, speaking fluent Igbo was the key that I believed would grant my access to so many spaces I felt like I could never fully belong in without it. After all, my cousin had seen other family members from our parents’ generation who were born and raised outside of Igbo land but could still speak their mother tongue fluently.

What then could be the problem with me? I felt inadequate. For so much of my life growing up in the States, I had always had a dual consciousness of being both Igbo and American, but in Nigeria I was unable to do something so basic – speak the language.

For so long in my life, learning to speak Igbo had been a great desire of mine. I love the descriptive words of the sentences and the additional sounds that can tell a whole story on their own. I love how soothing and comforting the expressions felt coming from my mom, that if translated into English just could not do justice.

“For so long in my life, learning to speak

Igbo had been a great desire of mine.”

But I did not know where to start to learn how to speak my mother tongue. Nearly in tears, one day I expressed to my mother my desire to learn and she encouraged me to just start speaking it and said that no one would laugh at me. But unfortunately, there was nothing just about starting to speak it. I remember my earnest initial attempts to get words like kpọ, (call), gba ọsọ (run) and kwụsị (stop) to come out of my mouth. But they were stuck in my head and I just couldn’t get them out.

Something had to change.

So prior to starting graduate school in physical therapy at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, I decided not to simply spend that time working but rather to embark on a journey of self-exploration and language acquisition. From my apartment in Philadelphia, I headed to Nigeria for what turned out to be six months. Before deciding to move, I had received mixed reviews. Some people encouraged me while others said I could be doing something better with time or warned me that Nigeria was dangerous.

The choice to go to Nigeria at that time turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life in so many ways. I lived in the Imo State capital of Owerri with my mom’s friend’s mom. In terms of language, I quickly learned that I had to fulfill two tasks. Firstly, I would have to teach people around me how to teach me Igbo. Trying to study it like a textbook wasn't really working and also I realized quickly that just because someone can speak something doesn't mean that they can teach it. So I set out paying close attention to what questions I needed to ask and how I needed to frame my questions to get the answers I needed. Secondly, I needed to actively immerse myself in the language so that people would not default to just speaking English to me. In the daytime, I walked around with my phone, recording phrases I heard people say and practicing, listening and repeating them out loud at night, to start using them the next day. I listened to Igbo radio stations and tried to speak Igbo in public as my courage allowed me. I felt mortified speaking in public! As an adult who has reached the point where I can speak a language not only fluently but eloquently as well, it was so hard going back to sounding like an infant learning to speak. But people were more encouraging than I expected. To gain confidence, I surrounded myself with the people and spaces that would encourage me.

Before I knew it, I realized that I was building thicker skin against any form of ridicule. And more importantly, with less difficulty, I was finding the right Igbo words to say. Eventually, I could maintain conversations in Igbo – something I could never do before. I remember one day my father called me from the U.S. while I was in Nigeria and I maintained our conversation in Igbo, to the point where he almost started gisting with me about some past family gossip and his childhood. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of becoming that I had never known before.

“The choice to go to Nigeria at that time

turned out to be one of the best

decisions of my life in so many ways.”

With this incredible experience in mind, I knew I wanted to share something that I never knew could become a reality – me, speaking Igbo, with others in the diaspora like me. Unfortunately, too many Igbo people, both in the diaspora and also in Nigeria, cannot speak Igbo.

Knowing this all too well, in 2019, I created Ọjị Abịala: An Igbo Podcast where I, as the learner, have different guest teachers come on and teach topics that hone in on conversational Igbo skills. I've received amazing feedback. One listener sent an email with the subject Igbo Excellence. Another listener, a native Igbo speaker who had been trying to figure out how to teach her young children Igbo in the U.S., sent me an Instagram message noting that she was so inspired by the podcast that she was naming her first daughter after me.

I am floored by the support and friendships I have made with the different Igbo language instructors I've connected with mostly, online such as Obioha, Omenkà and Onyinye.

From the podcast, what I have created has expanded to include an Igbo conversation exchange program that employs nearly 20 people back home in Nigeria and has taught Igbo to more than 300 people in more than 15 different countries as well as an app called Obodo Full Circle.

Me with the conversation exchange program in Enugu, Nigeria

I recently read an Instagram post by @nowhitesaviours that reads:

“Speaking your mother tongue is a superpower, a revolutionary act in a world that convinces you assimilation is a measure of your worth.”

That hit me!

A goal that began as a journey to accomplish a lifelong desire is more than just a goal. It is a revolutionary act to state that my language, my culture and my heritage matters. And that I and the many others who have embarked on this journey with me, will strive to be living testimonies that they matter.

Ịfụnanya is a doctor of physical therapy living in New Jersey. She's passionate about languages, cultures and black solidarity. She is also a serial entrepreneur and an avid traveler!

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